The Agriculture Ministry, in its written replies to the Parliamentary Committee on Subordinate Legislation on Rules on the Cigarettes and Other Tobacco Products Act 2003, has said it has no objection to the notification mandating health warnings covering 85 per cent of the display area of tobacco packets.
Puncturing the tobacco lobby’s claim that larger pictorial warnings would affect the livelihood of tobacco farmers and farm workers, the ministry said that alternate crops had been clearly mapped out by regions engaged in tobacco production, so there would be no great livelihood implications.
The replies from the ministry, essentially supporting the notification, include data that shows that between 2012-13 and 2013-14, the total area under tobacco cultivation went up from 426.04 hectares to 455.86 Ha, production increased from 656.99 thousand tonnes to 735.02 thousand tonnes and yield went up from 1,542 tonnes per Ha to 1,612.
The committee had asked the ministry: “It has been brought to the notice of the committee that more than 30 lakh farmers and farm workers are engaged in growing bidi tobacco. there is no alternative crop for the bidi workers. What are your comments in this regard?”
The ministry replied that alternate crops have already been identified, such as onion, chilli, maize and sunflower for Tamil Nadu; sugarcane, soya bean groundnut and sorghum in Karnataka; potato, maize, wheat and mustard in West Bengal and maize, sunflower, black gram and chickpea for Andhra Pradesh.
The Cigarettes and Other Tobacco Products (Packaging and Labelling) Amendment Rules 2014 were notified in October last year and would have come into effect from April 1, 2015. They were stayed after the Health Ministry chose to abide by an interim recommendation of the parliamentary committee to defer larger pack warnings, even though it is not binding on the government to accept such recommendations.
The committee has drawn flak not only because it forced the stalling of a notification that had earned kudos for the country on the international stage — India would have become the country with the largest pictorial warnings — but also because its members courted controversy with their open and illogical defence of the tobacco trade.
Two members of the committee who are the most vocal supporters of the tobacco lobby are bidi baron and Allahabad MP S C Gupta, with a Rs 250-crore empire, and Tezpur MP Ram Prasad Sarmah.
Chairman Dilip Gandhi was the first to question whether scientific evidence exists on the tobacco-cancer link among Indians.